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The Spanish Inquisition Revisited

Commenting on the inability of human societies to predict forthcoming calamities, the Los Angeles Times recently ran a comment piece headed ‘No-one expects the Spanish Inquisition – or Donald Trump’. There have been some dire predictions about the baleful impact that the new President might have not only in the US, but across the world. So, while we wait to see how his presidency might evolve, I thought I’d investigate the parallel suggested by the article and see what insights the early history of the Spanish Inquisition might offer to our current situation. The case of Diego Rodríguez Lucero, an infamous Spanish Inquisitor who ran away with his mission and took it to barbarous extremes, provides some food for thought for our own times.

Lucero took over as Inquisitor in Cordoba in 1499 but it was not until after Queen Isabel of Castile’s death in 1504 that he embarked on a McCarthy-style mission to eradicate not ‘Reds under beds’, but Jews under pews. Since Isabel and her husband Fernando of Aragón signed the Edict of Expulsion in 1492, there had officially been no Jews living in Spain, but the cities in Andalusia and in the north contained sizeable populations of people of Jewish origin – some recent converts to Christianity, some from families which had converted over a century previously. The descendants of many of these earlier converts had risen to occupy plum positions in the church and town hierarchies, or in the service of noble masters, and there was an underlying resentment towards them and a continuing sense of their ‘otherness’ which spilled over into violence. Fernando and Isabel’s Spanish Inquisition was created in 1478 to root out false converts, but Lucero’s attack on people of Jewish origin was more widespread and more vicious than anything that the institution had overseen before. On 22 December 1504, he had 107 people burnt at the stake as heretics in Cordoba. A learned cleric known as the Maestro de Toro witnessed this auto de fe and was horrified to hear several of the dying victims cry out to Jesus and the Virgin and call for notaries to record that they had died as Christians. In Granada, the famously pious and gentle Archbishop Hernando de Talavera was targeted as a renegade Jew, along with all his family. In 1506 there were more than 400 people detained by Lucero in Cordoba’s Alcázar, whose families loudly protested their innocence, and there were tales of torture, sexual violence, and accusations which were financially-motivated.

How did Lucero get away with such extreme behaviour, which transgressed the Inquisition’s own rules and regulations, and indeed, the legal and moral codes governing civilised behaviour in his society? How was he able to present his conduct as acceptable? These questions seem to have more than an echo of relevance today. Firstly, to justify his hard line, Lucero created a narrative. He claimed that the whole country was about to be swamped by Jews returning to their old religion. Marauding bands of ‘prophetesses’ were sweeping through the countryside ‘judaising’ and that the houses of many notable figures were being used as ‘synagogues’. This created a climate of fear and King Fernando eagerly gave him the go-ahead for a crackdown. Lucero was no respecter of truth. Where there was no evidence, he had no problem in inventing it. Prisoners who were later released told tales of child detainees being taught Jewish prayers in order to incriminate their elders, and confessions extorted through torture, rape, and humiliating treatment such as being interrogated naked. Lucero had to resort to gagging and beating victims dying at the stake in order to prevent them crying out about the treatment they had suffered. It was thought that one of the reasons he ordered such large-scale burnings was to conceal evidence of the extremes he had gone to. But large-scale autos de fe energised the populace, stoked the climate of fear and fed the demand for more. If there were so many heretics, so the line went, then very harsh measures were needed to stamp out the menace. Like many institutions today which harbour unsavoury characters, the Inquisition closed ranks and protected him, fearing for its reputation if it admitted that its own rules of conduct had been broken. Lucero’s actions were also popular among certain sections of the community. People enjoyed seeing ‘evil’ punished. One local cleric commented that ‘people want there to be a lot of heretics, to see them arrested and burnt’. In addition, Lucero made sure that there were plenty of beneficiaries from his actions: key figures were bribed or rewarded with property and positions confiscated from his victims. The king’s secretary was one of these beneficiaries and prevented appeals on behalf of those accused from reaching the monarch, who rejected their approaches as ‘bribery’. Lucero exploited a political power vacuum in the aftermath of Isabel I’s death (Fernando was technically only King of Aragón), and a local crisis over poor harvests and outbreaks of plague. He was applauded by hard-liners for appearing to provide strong political solutions in the face of a breakdown of law and order. For Fernando, he provided a symbol of his continuing power and control in Castile.

‘For moving his tongue in another way’ – Goya’s take on the Spanish Inquisition

But Lucero did not enjoy his impunity for long. A broad coalition of nobility, townspeople and clergy gathered evidence of his misdeeds and made their case to the Queen, the Pope, to foreign governments and archbishops. They succeeded in forcing the resignation of the Chief Inquisitor. His replacement, Archbishop Cisneros, had Lucero removed as Inquisitor and set up a board of enquiry to examine the evidence against him. The trial documents form the basis of what we know about him today. In this first concerted action against the Inquisition, the campaigners against Lucero edged towards a concept of human rights which would soon find an echo in Bartolomé de las Casas’ defence of indigenous people in the New World, and be articulated further in Spain’s comunero rebellion of 1520. But although they were successful in removing one of its most notorious figures, the Inquisition continued to hold Spanish society in its grip for another 300 years. It seems that by that time people had, indeed, come to expect it.

Teresa Tinsley, PhD Student

Faith and the fall of Muslim Granada: The interpreter’s tale

When Isabel of Castile and Fernando of Aragon took Granada from the Moors in 1492, their propaganda claimed it as a heroic victory marking the culmination of an 800 year struggle against Muslim invaders. Arabic and Jewish accounts, of course, reported it differently, but one Christian account is exceptional in presenting an alternative take on events. This was written – in Spanish – by Hernando de Baeza, a man who had been the Granadan emir’s interpreter and had lived with him in the Alhambra palace for the final four years of the Granada War.

MoorsThe ‘Capitulaciones’ or Treaty document for the handover of Granada in 1492 agreed between the Muslim emir and the Spanish monarchs, which Hernando de Baeza had a hand in negotiating.

Instead of presenting the Moors as enemies of the faith illegitimately occupying Christian lands, Baeza drew attention to the similarities and parallels between Christian and Moorish culture. For example, he explains sharia law as being like Christian canon and civil law. Baeza presents himself as a devout Christian but, in his narrative, Christians are not necessarily morally superior and Christian virtues are also displayed by Muslims. He also deals sensitively with the question of religious conversion and is strongly sympathetic towards Christians who, having been taken prisoner in Muslim territory, had converted to Islam and were regarded as apostates after Granada came under Christian rule.

Baeza’s work was rediscovered in the 19th century and acclaimed as a fascinating narrative – it is full of beheadings, betrayals and daring escapades. In the 20th it was exploited as a useful source on events within the Muslim court in the period leading up to the Christian conquest. As Spain has rediscovered its multicultural past, the temptation has been to see Baeza as an early spokesman for liberal values representing the spirit of ‘convivencia’ in the ‘Spain of the Three Cultures’. But Baeza was writing at a crucial moment for the development of Spanish religious identity – around 1510 – and I read the text as a subtly subversive account confronting the most controversial issues of his day: tyranny versus social justice, the reform of the church, and the role of the Inquisition. Certainly, his readers understood these meanings, since a version of Baeza’s manuscript found its way into a mid-16th century codex compiled by Bishop Vasco de Quiroga on the conversion of Mexican Indians. Baeza’s account therefore deserves a more in-depth analysis, informed by an understanding of his background and positioning in the social and political context in which he wrote.

As part of my ongoing doctoral research I have so far explored two crucial aspects of his biography. Firstly, I have confirmed that he was of Jewish descent; his own parents and grandparents had been condemned to death by the Inquisition and he himself had been penanced for heresy. His case for a light touch approach towards apostates living in Granada therefore needs to be seen also as a personal, and at the same time more universal, plea for understanding in relation to the complexities of religious conversion.
Secondly, Baeza’s role in international affairs did not end with the handover of Granada. Between his time there and writing the piece, Baeza spent a number of years in Rome, in close association with Julius II, whom he helped to install as Pope, and other figures of the High Renaissance. I shall be arguing that it was here, in the light of the new currents of thought to which he was exposed, that he reflected on the more far-reaching aspects of the end of medieval multicultural Iberia and wrote, not just a simple memoire, but a more profound reflection on the future of Christianity in Spain’s emerging new global empire.

Teresa Tinsley, PhD Student

Women & sex in Christian – Muslim relations: the medieval perspective


Every year, on the Sunday before 5 October, the feast day of St Froilán, the inhabitants of the Spanish city of León celebrate a popular festival known as Las Cantaderas. The fiesta, which has been in existence for almost 500 years, commemorates the decision supposedly taken in the late eighth century by the Christian kings of Asturias to deliver one hundred maidens to the emir of al-Andalus (Muslim Iberia) in annual payment of tribute. Tradition records that this obligation was later removed by King Ramiro I (842-50), who, with the miraculous assistance of St James, defeated a vast Muslim army at Clavijo in the Rioja in 844.

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Sculptural depiction of St James, the victor of Clavijo, at Santiago de Compostela cathedral

During the course of the Leonese festivities a group of young women dressed in medieval costume is instructed to dance by a figure known as the sotadera, who is to lead them southwards to join the emir’s harem. However, the sotadera takes the group on an alternative route as far as the cathedral, where further dancing takes place, Mass is held, and offerings are made to the Virgin to give thanks for the safe delivery of the women.

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The festival of the Cantaderas

The legend of the tribute of the hundred maidens has gripped the imagination of Spaniards for the best part of 900 years and inspired an extraordinary outpouring of artistic creativity, including works of history, poetry, drama, painting and even a zarzuela (the Spanish opera form). The legend also lay at the heart of one of the most effective forgeries to have been carried out anywhere in the medieval Latin West: the solemn promise of an annual offering to the shrine of St James at Santiago de Compostela (the ‘Voto de Santiago’).

My latest research project has investigated the political and cultural significance of sexual encounters between Christians and Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula, from the Islamic conquest in the early eighth century to the end of Muslim rule in 1492. Examining a wide range of sources including legal documents, historical narratives, polemical and hagiographic works, poetry, music, and visual art, the book investigates the ways in which interfaith couplings were perceived, tolerated, or feared, depending upon the political and social contexts in which they occurred. In doing so, the book explores why the “cultural memory” of such liaisons carried such a powerful resonance within Christian society during the Later Middle Ages and beyond, and considers the part that memory played in reinforcing community identity and defining social and cultural boundaries between the faiths.

Marriages between Muslim men and Christian women helped consolidate Islamic authority over Iberia in the aftermath of the conquest. Marriage alliances were also a tool of diplomacy for the ruling Umayyad dynasty and for other elite Muslim families in their relations with the states of the Christian North. Meanwhile, procreating with slave concubines served as a dynastic defence mechanism, designed to ensure that a Muslim wife’s family would not stake its own claims to power. Furthermore, the enslavement of large numbers of Christian women during the course of Muslim attacks on the North, as a consequence of which some were recruited to the harems of the Muslim male élite, constituted a powerful weapon of war, designed to erode community cohesion on the Christian side and reduce its will to resist.

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Ivory casket given in 964 by the caliph al-Ḥakam II to his concubine Ṣubḥ (Madrid: Museo Arqueológico Nacional)

Yet attitudes towards such liaisons did not remain fixed throughout the medieval period. From the late eleventh century, a range of political, social and cultural forces – a shift in the balance of power in favour of the Christians; ecclesiastical reform; the influence of canon lawyers; and the development of a militant anti-Islamic ideology – converged to condemn interfaith marriage to swift decline. The Christian authorities also drafted laws that were designed to prevent sexual mixing between Christian women and Muslim and Jewish men.

For all their differences, Christian, Islamic and Jewish law codes were agreed that their own women should not indulge in sexual relationships with men of other faiths. The fear was that such liaisons would lead women to apostasy; but they were also viewed as acts of dishonour, both to the women and to their menfolk who had failed to protect them. By linking the sexual honour of a group’s women to the collective honour of the wider community, lawgivers and others imbued such sexual unions with intense political meaning. Yet interfaith sexual politics were asymmetrical. In al-Andalus Muslim men took Christian wives or concubines with the acquiescence of Islamic law; and while the Church authorities criticised those Christian men who took Muslim or Jewish concubines or frequented minority prostitutes, such relationships were not considered to undermine the existing hierarchies of power and were rarely punished.

The legend of the tribute of the hundred maidens, which first appeared c.1160, tapped into these anxieties. It also represented a warning from the past. Christians were reminded that military failure against the Muslims would not only be paid for with lives, lands and castles, but also with feminine sexual honour, which would in turn diminish the collective honour of Christendom as a whole. Christian soldiers therefore had to prove themselves as men, so that the memory of that past shame might be avenged and the barriers that had been erected between the faiths could never be breached again.

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Conquerors, Brides, and Concubines: Interfaith Relations and Social Power in Medieval Iberia will be published by University of Pennsylvania Press in January 2015.

Prof. Simon Barton

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